Gurcharan Singh (b 5 July 1911) was a strapping young lad from Badali Ala Singh (Patiala state now in Fatehgarh Sahib district). He was enrolled into the 1st Sikh Regiment on 5 July 1929 (the reason why many jawans and JCOs seem to be exactly 18 on their enrolment day is that in the absence of formal birth records in those days the regimental records offices conveniently made them up). Rising up through the ranks he became a Jemadar (now known as Naib Subedar) on 1 February 1942 and acting Subedar on 6 February 1944.
On 20th February 1944 in action against the Japanese at Point 182 in the Arakan in command of No. 10 Platoon of Delta Company of 1st Sikh he displayed outstanding tactical ability, remaining cool, and level headed throughout the action. He was with his leading men during the whole attack, cheering and leading them on and proved himself to be a leader in every sense of the word.
From the moment that the orders for the attack were issued until the last Japanese was killed, Jemadar Gurcharan Singh was an inspiration to his men and to the whole company. The attack a success, he was awarded the military cross for displaying leadership of a high order and personal bravery beyond the call of duty.
On 21 May 1945 he was commanding the right forward platoon of his company ordered to capture the village of Kabaing, near Mandalay, which was held by a strong party of the enemy. The assaulting troops had to cross 500 meters of open country, which included a wide chaung (nullah) with precipitous sides and deep running water and during this phase came under very heavy small arms fire.
The subedar (as he now was) personally led his leading section to the assault; he himself dashed at the first light-machine gun post and bayoneted two of the enemy. With great dash, courage and determination he continued personally to lead the assault on to each succeeding enemy post. His platoon killed thirty-five of the enemy with bayonet and grenade at small cost to themselves.
It was largely due to the inspired leadership of Subedar Gurcharan Singh that his company achieved such overwhelming success killing 67 of the enemy. An immediate bar to the military cross was recommended and awarded.
Gurcharan Singh was again in action with 1st Sikh in the historic airlift that saved Kashmir in October 1947. On the afternoon of 12 December that year, at Bhatgiran while in command of the battalion’s defence platoon he was ordered to launch a counter-attack on the enemy who were found concentrating their forces on the left flank of the Battalion and deploying them in an attempt to encircle own positions.
Dashing towards the hostile base but finding himself outnumbered, Subedar Gurcharan Singh withdrew his platoon to mount another attack. Subedar Gurcharan Singh was wounded but displayed utmost courage, a spirit of sacrifice and sincere devotion to duty. Awarded the Vir Chakra on 26th January 1950 – a winner of three gallantry medals!
He retired in the early 60s to look after his farm at Bibipur adjacent to his native village where the Punjab Govt had allotted him 50 acres of land as a reward for his three gallantry awards (something rather rare, most gallantry awardees simply got monetary awards). Sadly he died of cancer in 1980.
While the Punjab government was good enough to name the Bibipur-Dangherian road after him I strongly feel that the appropriate commemoration of such a brave heart’s gallantry would be to install his bust either at the district headquarters or at his village.
Youngsters watching the NatGeo show ‘Mission Army’ were very impressed with the hi-tech equipment shown in the engineers segment of the programme such as the PMP pontoon bridge, the Krupmann floating bridge, the Amphibious Floating Bridge and Ferry System, the Sarvatra (Sanskrit for ‘everywhere’, the motto of the corps of Engineers) bridge layer and the self-propelled mine burier. Well boys (and increasingly girls) the sappers have all these and much more.
In fact they possess and field the most sophisticated equipment in the Army, which they maintain with loving care and the skilled, dedicated professionalism that they bring to their entire field of work. They’ve also been known on occasions too numerous to enumerate to lay down their tools, take up their weapons and give the enemy a bloody nose.
Besides their skilled professionalism that they acquire through a process of constant and backbreaking training they show a high degree of dedication to their work and devotion to duty, working tirelessly even under fire.
Nothing exemplifies this better than the exploit that earned the legendary General Prem Bhagat of the Bombay Engineers the Victoria Cross. I can do no better than to quote from the citation – ‘On two occasions when his carrier was blown up with casualties to others, and on a third occasion when ambushed and under close enemy fire he himself carried straight on with his task.
He refused relief when worn out with strain and fatigue and with one eardrum punctured by an explosion, on the grounds that he was now better qualified to continue his task to the end’. His coolness, persistence over a period of 96 hours, and gallantry, not only in battle, but throughout the long period when the safety of the column and the speed at which it could advance were dependent on his personal efforts, were of the highest order. This was described as the ‘longest feat of cold courage’ by his commanding general.
Similar was the feat that fetched 2nd Lieutenant RR Rane (born 26 June 1918 at Chendia, Karnataka) the Param Vir Chakra.
During the advance to Rajauri in April 1948, the superhuman efforts on the part of Rane and his section of 37 Assault Field Company, Bombay Engineers, attached to 4 Dogra paved the way for the Indian column to reach Chingas (a historic place on the old Mughal road to Kashmir where Emperor Jahangir’s intestines lie buried) by clearing numerous road blocks while under the enemy’s machine-gun and artillery fire.
While clearing a minefield on 8th April two of his men were killed and he himself was wounded by the enemy’s mortar fire. Regardless of his wounds he carried on tirelessly, motivating his men to give of their best too.
On the 10th a roadblock stopped tanks of the Central India Horse from advancing further. The enemy guarded all approaches to the block through positions perched on the adjoining, dominating hills.
The resolute Maratha undeterred, drove to the block in a tank and crouching under it blasted it with explosives at a great risk to himself. The advance continued and attained its objective thanks to the devotion to duty, courage and professional skill of Rane and his sappers.
As his citation notes, ‘But for the grim determination and tireless diligence of 2nd Lieutenant Rane, who worked ceaselessly, our column could not have reached Chingas - an important feature which secured for us a vantage position to advance further’. A feat fit for the award of a richly deserved Param Vir Chakra!
The next time you meet a Sapper think of all the professionalism, hard training and pride in their corps that makes them work fearlessly and tirelessly under the enemy’s fire. Salute.
RIP Lakshmi Sehgal
While we endlessly debate the feasibility of allowing women to serve in the armed forces its good to remember that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose raised a combat unit of women soldiers in the Indian National Army (INA) called the Rani of Jhansi regiment.
Captain Lakshmi Swaminathan was tasked to raise and train the unit. After the war she married Colonel Prem Sehgal, one of the three INA officers tried in the famous Red Fort trial. Sadly she died at the age of 97. RIP.
July 30th was the 167th Raising Day of 4 Mech, formerly 1st Sikh.
The writer is a Chandigarh-based chronicler of military matters. Share your feedback, suggestions and news at 09316135343 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org